The 8 most important skills of the best Chief Technology Officers

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

A great Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or technology leader should be a business leader first, practise extreme ownership, and deliver value quickly. If you have aspirations of being a Chief Digital Officer or Chief Information Officer then read on…

The CTO role is relatively young in comparison with some other C-suite colleagues. The first waves of CTOs or CIOs were often the leading technologists in their organisation, however, technology leadership has changed drastically over the last decade.

If you want to become a CTO that has real impact then these are the things to focus on.

Technology tag cloud

1. Be a business leader first

First and foremost be a business leader who happens to specialise in digital and technology.

You’ll need a well-rounded knowledge of finance, procurement, commerce, HR, operations, marketing, etc to have a good chance of being a senior leader.

Many business leaders are not technical, and nor should they be.

Explain technical jargon in plain English along with the business justification – cheaper to build, easier to maintain, faster to change, etc. Make sure you use the language of business not technology.

You’ll need to lead everyone in the business, so it’s not right to hide behind technical jargon.

2. Go see

One of my early managers told me “Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet” and that has stayed with me.

You shouldn’t spend all your time in offices and meeting rooms. Otherwise your only source of information is from meetings, reports, email, and reports.

If you want to know what’s happening, you have to spend a lot of time where your teams are actually working.

This will allow you to perform one of your key leadership roles – being an organisational unblocker.  Find issues that plague your teams, that they cannot solve themselves – and then prioritise ‘killing’ these impediments.

3. Practise extreme ownership

All responsibility for success or failure rests with the leader. The leader must own everything in their World. There is no one else to blame.” – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Taking responsibility is the essence of Extreme Ownership.

As a leader you must admit failures, take ownership of them and develop a plan to turn them around. Always accept the blame for your team – even if it means getting fired.

Teams which make excuses and blame others never improve their performance.

4. Be bold

Standout leaders who make a huge difference are bold.

This isn’t being recklessness or careless, taking needless risks or bullying people.

Boldness is about staking your own credibility on a course of action that you wholeheartedly believe in.  It’s about taking a risk that you’re right, even if no one else agrees with you.

Think about Henry Ford building the Model T, or Steve Jobs developing the iPhone.  These ideas would have sounded crazy to anyone apart from the bold leaders who had the courage of their convictions.

5. Deliver value at pace

Value only becomes real when you deliver. You should value finishing over starting.

It is much better to deliver some value today rather than lots of value a year from now. Otherwise all you have are just potential benefits in a spreadsheet.

Big technology programmes often fail because they have a ‘big bang’ approach to delivery. It takes so long to deliver that stakeholders lose interest and delivery teams lose momentum.

Delivering value at pace gives your team credibility and will help you to secure continued corporate investment and resources.

Focus on progress over perfection. Iterative delivery, making a series of small improvements based on user feedback rather than large and long-term change programmes.

6. Be unreasonably aspirational

The best leaders set aspirations that, on face value, seem unreasonable.

If your aspiration is not making your team feel nervous then you’re probably not aiming high enough.

John F Kennedy declared in 1961 that America would send a man to the Moon before the end of the decade. This lofty ambition, galvanised NASA into action, and the rest is history.

An ‘unreasonable’ goal will bring your team together and give them the drive to do something extraordinary. Along the way you must celebrate the small victories on the way, to keep up the momentum.

7. Open source your style

You must understand and clearly articulate your own personality, style and preferences. Then deliberately choose to lead with your qualities instead of trying to copy someone else. That is the essence of authenticity.

Your team aren’t mind readers, and they won’t know what you think or how you like to work unless you tell them.

You must be very open about:

  • your style
  • how you think
  • what you expect
  • what good looks like

All this will make it easier for your team to work with you more successfully.

You could also experiment with open sourcing your learning and knowledge, either within your business or externally in a blog or industry publication.

8. User/ customer focused

Spend time with your users or customers – not in a workshop or focus group but in their own environment. See how they interact with your service first-hand, and don’t just rely on analytics and reports.

It is not hard to be user focused but it does take a commitment to reprioritise your diary.

As a leader you need to be obsessed with the customer experience and champion the voice of the customer in every meeting with your team.

You should be building products that solve your customer’s problems and meet their needs.

You are a problem solver, not a procurer of technology. Think user needs over commercial needs.

Focusing on the user will also give your team purpose, because they will then be fired up by the fact they’re making a difference to people’s lives.


There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. Leadership is the single greatest factor in a team’s performance.

Leadership is highly personal but there are some traits every leader should develop. Get out of your office onto the frontline, understand your customers’ needs, take responsibility for your team and above all be bold.

I will finish with a quote that really resonates with me:
“Leaders should never be satisfied – they must always strive to improve and build that mindset into the team.” – Jocko Willink

I am sure many of you will have an interesting perspective so please add your thoughts in the comments below and we can start the debate.

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The 8 most important skills of the best Chief Technology Officers
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